How to Size and Select Skis

Sizing & Buying Skis

If you’re over the age of 40, you may remember extending your arm upward as far as you could, then having somebody match the top of a pair of skis to your wrist. If you were about 5′ 9″ you wound up on 200 cm skis. With the advent of freestyle skiing, skis got shorter and shorter, until today — the average adult male skis on a wide shaped ski from 160-177 cm; the average adult woman skis on 140-160. But the fact is that speed is the key to expert skiing, and a longer ski provides much better control at speed. So the idea is to use the longest ski you are comfortable with…except you need flotation in unpacked snow, so you want a wider ski, but longer for western powder…

Confused? Now you know what demo programs are all about…expert skiers using the biggest, best skis, with the ultimate goal of buying once the ideal ski is found. What about different conditions? Now you understand why your friend — the guy who can ski anything — has three or four pairs. But that still doesn’t solve your problem today, so let’s look at some standard “rules of thumb.”

Sizing a “Shaped” Ski For the average novice/intermediate skier, measure from the floor to the bottom of your chin, and use the closest size in centimeters. Need to convert to cm? Multiply inches by 2.54. Are you a “solid” intermediate skier that occasionally forays onto blacks? Measure anywhere from the bottom of your chin to the top of your forehead. Are you a ski anywhere solid pedal-to-the-metal hotshot? You might look more to a ski that tops out at your forehead.

The absolute beginner can be a little more conservative. I certainly don’t subscribe to the graduated length method, in which skiers start off on barrel staves barely longer than their boots. If you have a child just starting out, measure to the base of his or her chin, convert to centimeters, and go from there — but go cheap, and be prepared to buy new skis next year. If your child has skied a few times on loaners or rentals and been at least mildly successful, measure to mid-face. Keep in mind that kids grow — for most of us, the pre-season “ski swap” is your best bet for youth skis (and adult skis for that matter).

Teenagers can be all over the lot. They tend to be long and lean (damn them) requiring lighter weight skis. Sometimes the height measurement rules don’t apply if your child is extremely skinny — go to a shorter size. My twin daughters are both 5’6″ (168 cm). One skis on 160 cm sticks, while the other uses 155s, simply as a matter of preference.

What about racing skis or twin tips? All of these are a bit different; let’s look at my 5′ 6″ daughter again. She uses 155 cm skis for slalom, and 175 cm skis for giant slalom. Her twin tips for the park are 158, and she uses them when she ducks into the trees. In fact she enjoys the twin tips for virtually any of her recreational (non-racing) ski time — except for steep icy stuff. And on the occasions that she ventures onto the backside of the Colorado ski resorts, she wishes she were on much wider and longer skis.

In short, if you’re an average skier looking at this year’s equipment, size the ski to your chin.

Now of course if you’re talking about big mountain skiing, powder skiing, that sort of thing, then you’ll be on longer equipment. If you are that far along in your skill set, the concepts outlined on this page don’t really apply to you.

Mens vs. Womens skis… Most manufacturers produce one or two supreme designs for flat-out experts, one or two racing skis, one or two all-mountain skis, intermediate skis, and an entry-level ski. They frequently offer each in a mens and ladies model. At one time the men’s skis were red or black, the women’s skis were blue or white, and the entry level skis were silver. Times and styles have changed; today most women’s skis have an “L” in the model designation, e.g. SuperStix (mens) and SuperStix-L (womens). Women’s models tend to have more flexibility and be slightly lighter in weight, but that doesn’t mean that men can’t use them, and that women can’t use men’s skis…it’s just that the average skier will have the best success with a ski that matches their gender.

Another thing to note about women’s skis is that the bindings tend to be centered more forward than on male versions. This is often a moot point, since many men ski so conservatively that they are actually better off on a slightly more forward position.

Do you NEED a shaped ski? Yes and no. Are they better? Yes. Can you benefit from a shaped ski? Yes. Do you positively need shaped skis? You should have them. But here’s the exception: If you are a habitual wedge skier (snowplow), or stem christie (sort of snowplow turns), or wedel (that hopping style) skier, and ski once or twice a year, you don’t need shaped skis. But you ought to have them. If you want to develop your style further, invest in shaped skis. If you ski once or twice per year at a converted midwestern pasture, snowplowing and skidding parallel, save your money and stay on your straight skis with reliable bindings. And by the way: There is no shame in snowplowing and skid turning down the hill. Experts may frown upon your style, but so what? It’s a free country. You’re doing your thing, you’re out on the snow, and it’s about having fun. As for you wedel skiers, carving skis were invented because most skiers can’t do what you do.

Is there any harm in schussing down the hill on those old Rossy Quantums? Assuming the bindings are safe, no. There’s no harm at all. Of course, the bindings are probably shot, so put those skis out by the curb.

Do kids need a shaped ski? Yes and no. In fact, when kids are beginning skiers, I sort of prefer the straight ski. I think they learn more about how to get around, how to turn under situations when carving won’t work, etc. I wish kids could spend a year or so on straight skis, so that they have a full arsenal of skills for those conditions when carving goes out the window. But be warned that some of the more uppity ski areas won’t even give lessons to kids on straight skis these days.

Should you buy a straight ski? No. Never…unless you plan to use it on the wall of your ski house as a decoration. Straight skis are now so dated that any of the bindings installed on them — including some of the beloved Marker M Series — are no longer indemnified. DO NOT BUY STRAIGHT SKIS. The suggestion above — that they can be used — is for people who already own them and are willing to risk their ligaments.

The Key Advantage of Shaped Skis for Average Skiers In addition to the ease in turning described above, parabolic skis are generally wider in all sections of the ski. Here’s the deal…Let’s say you’re a six foot tall guy and you weigh 200 pounds. You need a certain number of square inches of ski in contact with the snow to maintain balance and stability. In the old days, skis were skinny, so they had to be super long to provide stability.

Today, fat is the new long. A modern 167 cm front side shaped ski has just as much surface area — probably more — than your old 200 cm ski. So you now have a shorter ski that is much easier to control on lift lines, in moguls, on crowded slopes, etc. etc. In fact, if you look at Youtube videos of an average family skiing during the 1970s, you’ll notice that they appear much less stable and in control than the average group of beginners today. That family from the 1970s probably had far more lessons and possessed more know-how, but the skis provided substantially less stability than today’s parabolics.

On a Budget? There are more and more 3rd and 4th generation parabolic skis being sold on the used ski market. These are skis like Dynastar Legend, Atomic Metron…skis with a 74 – 78 mm waist. Assuming these skis have indemnified bindings, this is a fine option for someone on a budget. Keep in mind, however, that skis now 5-7 years old were not as wide underfoot as today’s skis, so you generally need to go to a longer ski for stability. With the earliest parabolics, plan to have the ski reach your forehead or slightly higher.

As of 2015 the term you’re hearing is Rocker. In a nutshell, this is reverse camber. The ski turns more easily. You can have full rocker, partial rocker, tail and tip rocker, blah blah blah. Now you’re in a situation where a lot less of the ski is in contact with the snow, so you need to go bigger.

Understanding the Numbers

Try to talk technically with a ski techie and you’ll feel befuddled rather quickly. How about a pair of 167 all-mountains with a 15.5 m on a 132-88-112? Sound good? Wondering what the heck it means? Read on…

The first number, of course, is the length in centimeters. That’s the easy part. The second number is known as the “turning radius.” It’s a mathematical thing based on ski design, length, and sidecut. It tells you how long it takes the ski to turn…how far you’ll travel before completing the radius. It actually doesn’t do this at all — since every skier skis every slope differently — but it certainly gives you a good basis for comparison. If you like to cruise at high speeds, you want a higher turning radius, say, 25 or more. If you like carving tight esses on courderoy, you want a lower number, 11 – 15. If you like to mix it up, you want a number in the middle, perhaps 15 – 20. Floating on big powder? You’ll want 30. Kicking around crowded, icy hills in Ohio? You’ll want 15 or less.

Keep in mind that the skier turns the ski, not vice-versa. So while some people may do well on one particular radius, another skier may prefer a completely different turning radius for the same slope. Most recreational skiers are on turning radii lower than 20, but they pay the price on long steep slopes where the skis simply won’t “open up” and run. A downhill racing ski, built to cruise — and turn at high speeds — might have a turning radius of 46. That’s just about half a football field, so it’s completely wrong for the average skier. My old 198s had a turning radius of about 35. It was great on long steep diamonds at speed, but requires too much work on most slopes. The 177s I ski regularly on have a turning radius of 18, which is on the high end of what today’s average skier wants.

Working hand in hand with the radius — actually determining the radius — are the tip, middle and tail dimensions. These are numbers like 125-88-102 or 114-78-92 etc. Youth skis might be 92-58-84 or 102-68-89 or something like that. Simply put, this is the width of the ski in millimeters at three key points: the widest point of the “shovel” (top of the ski), followed by the thinnest point at mid ski, followed by the widest dimension at the tail of the ski.

Back in the heyday of the straight ski, the shovel dimension might be 80-84. As “sidecut” became more and more popular, this number grew to 86, then 89, where it stayed for awhile. With the advent of early generation “shaped” or “parabolic” skis, dimensions like 99-68-84 became popular. At the turn of Y2K, 104 was cutting edge. The average 2016 model had a shovel width of 130. “Wide is the new long” is an expression used in the industry. This has, by all accounts, made skiing easier, safer, and more accessible to the average non-skier. It has not, however, made the average overall level of skiing skills any better. Most skiers today do not have the same arsenal of tricks the skier of 1980 had — kick turns, jump turns, mogul skiing, schussing, wedel, true parallel turns — too many skiers rely solely on the snowplow and the carved turn, for which highly shaped skis are perhaps too well suited.

Width under foot depends on the type of skiing you do. If you’re a racer, or if you ski on ice a lot, you want a very narrow waisted ski — usually less than 70 mm. If you’re a front side recreational skier, 74 – 80 mm or more is where you want to be. Park and pipe? nice and wide. Powder and crud? Sky’s the limit, many powder skis are well over 110 mm waist width these days. Again, wide is the new long. As of 2015-2016, most recreational skiers with a one-ski quiver are on 84 – 88 mm width underfoot. But I’m telling you, if you live in the east and you deal with ice and you prefer the groomers, you’re gonna enjoy 74 – 78 mm underfoot more than a wider ski. The salesman may not agree, but it’s been proven time and again that intermediate skiers on the piste do better with a narrower waist. And if you’re reading this article, I’m going to assume you’re a novice or intermediate skier.

Buying New Skis

You’re at a big sporting goods store, looking at two different Rossignol skis side by side. One pair is $600 and the other is $150. Fact: If you don’t know the difference, you don’t need $600 skis. The entry level ski will work just fine for you, even if you regularly ski black diamonds. You probably ski 3 – 6 times per year, and while you want to ski well, you aren’t about to tackle the super steep double black diamond mogul field. Fact: The $150 pair (before bindings) is a well constructed ski that will perform very well for any skier. But…

As you ski more and more, and become more and more interested in the sport — reading, trying new things — your skills may advance to a higher level ski. Do you know what you need? A midfat? All-mountain? Freeride? Intermediate carver? Big Mountain? All-Mountain Expert? Take Advantage of Demo Programs at Ski Areas. Try different skis. Take notes. Do your homework…if you rush out and buy a high end ski that turns out to be unsuitable, you are buying an expensive lesson for yourself. Until you know the difference, and understand your needs, stick with the entry level to intermediate models…Rossignol Axium, Volkl Carver, K2 Escape, Elan Integra…all are excellent, well-constructed skis suitable for the majority of recreational skiers. As for kids, those Alpinas you see on sale will work just great. But as you progress, you need to do your research, and settle in with a professional ski shop for guidance and advice. They will plug you into a pair of skis that is right for your skills, your goals, and your budget.

Buying for teenagers can be a nightmare. Their friends have Rossignol expert skis…your budget says Rossignol intermediates. Fact: Your teenager will be fine on the lower grade ski, but their fragile teen ego is easily bruised. The solution is to provide enough funds for the lower priced ski, and let them fund the difference if they want the style-du-jour.

Buying Used Skis

They look good, and they cost a fraction of the price of new skis. Then you bring them to the mountain, and head for the ski shop to have your bindings reset…”sorry dude, can’t work on ’em, where’d you get those old skis?”

Congratulations, you own a pricey decoration for a ski chalet.

Of course not all used skis are clunkers, but unless you know the difference, you really have no business buying used skis. Get help from someone who knows their stuff.

The rule of thumb is to make sure the ski is five years old or less; the reality is that most used skis you’ll see are more than 5 years old. And if you’re at a garage sale, chances are they’re 10 to 20 years old. Unless you’re in the market for decorations, or one of the very few people who get a kick out of skiing on classic boards, you can leave the old skis right where they are. As mentioned above, DO NOT BUY STRAIGHT SKIS.

What to Look for when buying used…

First is ski condition:

  • Skis must have no delamination (layers coming apart).
  • Tips should not be bent or damaged.
  • No gouges in the base that go clear to the core.
  • No cracks in the sidewall.
  • No warping or uneven flexing.
  • No more than two visible sets of previous binding holes.
  • No gaps between base and steel edge.

Second is the bindings:

If no bindings are present, that’s fine, as long as you know in advance what/where/how you will have them put on. If they do have bindings, make sure they are on the list of indemnified bindings. If not, you will need to absorb all the risk of using the bindings, or have them replaced. As in the scenario above, the dude at the shop won’t touch them unless they are on the indemnified list.

Can you ski on non-indemnified bindings? Well, let’s use an analogy. Can you still drive a 1967 Ford Galaxie on the highway at 70 mph? Sure, but you aren’t likely to hold the road anywhere near as well as the 2009 Ford Taurus, and you certainly won’t be as safe. Both have four tires, an engine and a transmission — and both will get you there — but the Galaxie is really only suited for show at this point. Sometimes you might take it on the highway just for a hoot, people will stare at you, and you’ll remember the old days. With no airbag and old technology, you’re taking a huge risk. You probably do your own maintenance. Your non-indemnified bindings are the same way.

Last item is PRICE:

Please understand that most people selling used skis have an outrageous misconception as to their value. Even 20 year old skis will have a $100 price tag. “They were over $600 new when I bought them!” Yeah, well so was my 1983 Cadillac, but it’s scrap metal today. Don’t pay more than $100 for any pair of skis over four years old. Don’t pay more than $150 for any pair of skis over five years old. Don’t pay more than $60-80 for any pair of skis over eight years old. And after ten years, you’re paying for wall decorations. (With that in mind, be aware that a pair of 1970 vintage K2s in good condition will cost about $50 and up). Recent models, 2-3 years old, can still fetch hundreds of dollars depending on condition and quality.

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Take a look at the skis and boots at left. They’re listed on Craigslist as of November 2016 at $100. The actual value of these skis is….zero. Believe it or not, the poles are the most valuable item in the photo; worth about ten bucks. The skis are in near perfect condition; here’s a typical case of someone who bought skis 25 years ago for $600 and used them twice. In their minds, they think the skis are only ten years old and realistically worth hundreds of dollars, but they’re willing to give them away for $100. Sorry, but these boots and skis belong at the curb.

Buying Demo Skis

Caveat Emptor is all I can say. Some ski shops — especially big resort ski shops — seem to think that their demo skis are made of gold and thus charge top dollar. Other online dealers sell “demo” skis of dubious heritage. “Less than 20 days on the hill” and “We used them once” are to be taken with a grain of salt.

If you positively know that a certain pair of skis was used once or twice, or if you know your brands and model names, you’ll have a better idea of their real value.

Used Skis from Ski Shops

One of the best ways to buy used skis is from an “off-mountain” ski shop. It’s often rental inventory, or demos, or whatever…but chances are they want to move the stuff. Off-mountain shops tend to price stuff a little lower, knowing they don’t have a captive audience the way the on-mountain shop does. Also, smaller mom’n’pop stores tend to sell their used stuff cheaper than the chains. Not always, but often. Shop around.

Ski Swap

Smaller ski resorts and ski clubs often have a “ski swap” or some derivation thereof, in which people bring their older equipment to sell. A portion goes to the host group, and the seller gets the rest. Many times these are hosted by a ski patrol group, etc. This is one of the great under-rated opportunities for buying decent equipment at very fair prices. An added advantage to buying at a ski swap is that you can generally find someone associated with the host group who can offer advice about your purchase.

Of all the avenues available for used ski purchases — including ebay — ski swaps are generally where you will get the most for your money. But you must do your homework and know what you are looking at.

Buying New Skis

Shop around is the key here. Rent skis, rent demos. Attend on-mountain “demo days.” Try different sizes. Learn what works for you, and what doesn’t.

A friend of mine stands 5′ 10″ (about the same height as I am) and skis exclusively on 160 cm skis, while I usually ski on 177 cm skis. Is he right? Am I right? Ask a factory representative, or an instructor, or a salesperson, or just about anybody, and they’ll say we’re both wrong; both of us should be on something in the 167-173 cm range. But the fact is that we’ve both skied on those sizes; we just happen to prefer a different size than what the experts suggest. My friend feels he has more control over smaller sticks, and he likes to keep his speed down. I feel that although longer sticks may be harder to control, their length provides more control on the surface of the snow. Who’s right? We both are. My friend uses what’s right for him, and I use what’s right for me.

Had either of us simply walked into a ski shop and said “hook me up,” neither of us would have the optimum ski for our style.

As far as finding a “good deal,” sometimes last year’s leftovers, or even three-year-old leftovers are the way to go. Just as the on-mountain shops clobber you on demos, sometimes they give away inventory that they perceive to be old. How old is old? Is the ski design from last year or two years ago really inferior? The answer is no. If the ski is indeed still new, and the shop is closing it out at a bargain price, it probably is an outstanding value.

E-bay is another outstanding way to find bargains on last year’s leftovers…and sometimes current models as well.  Big chain sporting goods stores — not to be confused with ski shops — are another excellent way to find great value in lower end new equipment. While ski shops are passionate about their products (and think of it as gold), the big box sporting goods stores look at skis the same way they look at footballs, jogging shorts, swim goggles, etc. — just another commodity. When winter dwindles, they discount like crazy to make room for the golf clubs. The models they carry may not be the best a particular brand sells, but then again, very few of us are the best skiers on the hill.

Vintage Skis

This is a specialized area, and the overwhelming majority of you reading this page are not encouraged to attempt skiing on vintage equipment. Mentioned above in the same vein as vintage cars, vintage skiing is best left to experts and afficianados willing to take the inherent risks. Vintage skiing is about finding a pristine pair of Rossignol Strato skis, or big red Spaulding skis, Northlands with Cubco bindings, that sort of thing. The vintage ski enthusiast tunes his or her own equipment, and then actually skis with it. But just as you see the vintage car enthusiast driving with a lot more caution than most motorists, so too does the vintage ski enthusiast. The motorist carefully monitors every aspect of the vintage automobile — every knock, ping, clank, and shimmy. In the same respect, the vintage skier is tuned in to every wobble, flex, and snag. The antique car looks great until you see it conked out on the highway…same with the antique ski equipment.

If you do attempt it, recognize that skiing on vintage equipment is a substantial risk, injuries do occur, and you will be the only one responsible. For most of us, vintage skis are best suited to being hung on the wall. But there is something to be said for the coolness factor!